Just what is Labour’s position on levelling up?

The Government has rightly come in for criticism for both the time it took to publish the levelling up white paper and the inaction that has ensued since. As yet, sadly, Labour has not grasped the electoral opportunity this presents.

According to a recent YouGov poll, the public are twice as likely to think a Keir Starmer-led government would do a better job on levelling up than a Boris Johnson-led one. While this is good news for Labour, it also creates an expectation of delivery should Starmer have the opportunity to become prime minister. And it isn’t clear as yet as to what it is that his government would do to meet this expectation.

The main charge from Labour so far, in the little the party has said about the white paper to date, is that levelling up is nothing more than an empty slogan. Until the publication of the white paper in February this was most certainly true. But its publication has changed this – there is now some content behind the slogan.

Unfortunately, Labour seemingly hasn’t engaged with the white paper or set out a position on its content. Does the party agree with the framework that the government has set out? Does it agree with the targets that have been set? What does the party think the strengths and weaknesses are of the approach, and where would it address tensions and trade-offs differently to how the paper sets out?

Instead the response so far hasn’t got much beyond the line that ‘the white paper does nothing for the places that built and powered modern Britain’. There’s sadly little presented to back up this position. There’s also no clear vision as to what Labour would do about it. Without either of these things, this turn of phrase risks becoming empty rhetoric in itself. Ultimately, this lack of political competition isn’t good for the levelling up agenda.

So, what is it that Labour should be saying in order to build consensus where there is agreement, hold the Government to account on a point where it has been able to score a number of political wins, and show voters it has a vision that they should vote for? Here are three suggestions.

1. Acknowledge that the Government is right to identify the underperformance of big cities as the main challenge to prosperity outside of the Greater South East

The main intellectual contribution of the white paper was to set out choices about where investment in the economy should go, by setting out (based on Centre for Cities’ work) that policy should aspire to get every place to reach its productivity potential, while noting that this potential varies across places and that the problem the UK economy faces is that the biggest cities are quite some distance from their potential, costing the nation billions of pounds per year.

Politically this is a hard thing to say – particularly in the context of the unhelpful cities v towns debate that has been raging in recent years – and the Government should be commended for it. The easy response from Labour would be to say that this ignores the plight of left behind towns. If this is the line of attack they want to go down though, they will have to show why they think this is the case – the evidence certainly doesn’t seem to support it.

To govern is to choose and Labour should go further on levelling up than the Government has so far (as Gordon Brown encouraged the party to do when speaking at a Centre for Cities event in Manchester last month). The party should set out a positive vision for how it intends to boost the lagging performance of our biggest cities, and show how this would bring benefits for both the millions of people living in and around those cities and the national economy as a whole.

2.Hold the government to account on the austerity that has weakened day-to-day public services and benefits

The publication of the white paper comes after a decade of tightly-squeezed budgets in local government (which has impacted northern urban authorities in particular), a further centralisation of funding through the creation of pots of money for local areas to bid into and be approved by Whitehall, and a cut to real terms benefits payments

There has been no clear articulation of what Labour would do to address the funding pressures that local government has come under and the squeeze in benefits payments that claimants have experienced during the last decade. Yet these two measures would directly improve the day-to-day lives of people across country. It is here that Labour seems to have the greatest opportunity to say something positive on levelling up.

3. Set out a clear position on devolution and how it would like to see local government reformed

Labour seems to have had a very complicated relationship with the topic of devolution in recent years. Before the current government stole its thunder on levelling up, George Osborne ate its lunch on devolution and elected mayors. Since then, the national party has wrangled with its centralist tendencies and railed against a Conservative-introduced institution, at a time when it has also seen the rise to prominence of figures like Andy Burnham (473,000 votes in 2021) and Sadiq Khan (1 million first round votes in 2021), who seemingly have held the Government to account on a number of occasions when the national Labour Party has not.

One of the strongest parts of the white paper was the devolution framework, setting out what places would get for institutional reform. Through the work on the Constitutional Commission, which Gordon Brown is leading, Labour should embrace devolution as a way to improve the delivery of policy at the local level and the outcomes for the people who live in them. It should engage in the debate about which are the best geographies to devolve to, and what it is that should be devolved to them. After all, if the aspirations of the white paper are realised, it would be a pretty radical shift in the way that the country is governed. Having nothing to say on it sits oddly. And it should set out where it would go further, deepening the existing devolution deals to give some of its most powerful politicians greater tools to get on with the job that millions of people voted for them to do.

An important factor in Germany’s approach to reunification was that it had cross-party support. Given the contested nature of the ballots in the places that levelling up is trying to help, this seems unlikely in the UK. However, Labour should at least have a workable alternative (or ‘counter-narrative, as Dan Jarvis recently put it) to the plans that the Government has set out. Not pushing the government harder seems to be missing the chance to score some political wins and more importantly, it makes it ever more likely that we’ll actually see little change to the long-running struggles of the parts of the country that all parties claim they want to help.

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Just what is Labour’s position on levelling up?